Lost in Translation: Stories from Foreigners Living in Egypt

With an unfamiliar language and different customs, living abroad can sometimes be difficult; but on the bright side, living abroad often ends in ridiculous, confusing, and hilarious situations that make great stories. Egypt is home to many foreigners who live, work, and study in the country, and almost all of them have a story to tell about a language mix-up or cultural misunderstanding with a hilarious outcome. We talked to some friends from abroad living in Egypt and asked them to tell us some of their funniest and strangest stories of being lost in translation in our beloved Um al-Dunya.

I, Myself, and I

Via Thomas Pinn

One of the reasons I love living in Egypt is the friendliness of the people and how people are so eager to chat. But when talking to people I met on the street, friends of friends, or in taxis, I always run into the same unavoidable issue of how incredibly confusing my name is in Arabic. My name is Anna so when people ask my name and I respond “Anna انا” (My name’s Anna), people look back at me confused, still waiting for the answer. One time taking a long taxi ride across Cairo on a swelteringly hot day in Cairo’s rush hour traffic, it took me a good hour to explain my name to the taxi driver who seemed to get more confused the more I explained in my broken Arabic. On jumping in the car, he politely asked (what’s your name?) “اسمك ايه؟”, to which I responded, “Anna انا” (my name’s Anna). Looking at me still as if waiting for an answer, I clarified by stating (My name Is Anna) Anna اسمي”, to which he answered agitatedly, “أيوا، (Yeah, so what’s your name?) انتي اسمك ايه؟”. As I responded with “Anna”, he quickly fired back (you) “انتي”، and this carried on for almost an hour until I finally managed to explain that my name was in fact Anna. I’ve since started using a different name for people I meet in Egypt to make life a little easier.

– Anna

The Wrong Order

I’m a big fan of street food and trying out new things, but there are certain things I can’t quite stomach. One time in downtown Cairo, I dropped by a liver and sausage sandwich cart to quickly grab a bite to eat before heading off and meeting a friend. The guy in front of me ordered something I had never seen before and the guy at the cart chopped up a small white ball of something and fried it before putting it into a sandwich. Wanting to try something new, I asked the guy what it was, to which he responded ‘brains.’ I’d never heard of this Arabic word, ‘brains’, before and I couldn’t figure out what it was. But I ordered it nonetheless and the guy at the cart asked me if I had tried it before. Embarrassingly, I wanted to pretend to be in the know, so I responded nonchalantly that I had, but he could tell in my voice that I wasn’t being truthful. As he started cooking it up, it dawned on me. The word ‘brains’ isn’t Arabic, but English. I had just ordered brains! Something I’m not sure I could stomach, but it was too late now. I’m pretty sure that he saw the realization on my face and when he gave me the sandwich, I had no choice but to give it a go and save any further embarrassment. It was the first and last time I will try brains and it is not a mistake I will make again.

– Tomas

Next Stop, Embarrassment

Trying the Cairo Metro for the first time was quite an experience for me. After queuing up to get a ticket and making the way to the crowded platform, the train quickly came into the station and people started rushing to board. Thinking on my feet, I looked for the least crowded bit of the train and quickly jumped on the train just as the doors were closing with no time to spare. As the train started chugging along, I looked up to notice that everyone in the carriage was in a confused silence and staring at me, and then I quickly realized that I was the only man in the carriage. It was at this point that I remembered that I had read about there being women-only carriages on the Cairo Metro. The women quickly decided I was just a confused foreigner and not someone up to no good and so I rushed to the next carriage at the next stop to avoid any further embarrassment. Unfortunately, as I entered the mixed-gender carriage, it turned out that they had seen everything from the carriage door and had been talking and laughing about it.

– Harry

But Why?

As a child, my parents would tell me that my name, Lee means a green meadow or pasture and that they chose the name because they hoped I would be adventurous and appreciate the wider world. However, in Egypt, people think my name is just me rudely responding to why they want to know my name. I remember when a very kind stranger offered to help show me the way when I was lost in Cairo in search of a small museum I was trying to find. As the guy took time out of his day to help me find this place, he asked me my name to which I responded, “Lee.” Thinking that I was saying “ليه؟” (why?), he looked quite shocked at how I was refusing to tell him my name after he selflessly helped me when I was lost. Not wishing to offend, I responded emphatically, “Lee لا, اسمي” ( no, my name is Lee). This didn’t help things though as he thought I was doubling down on refusing to tell him. The more I tried to explain my name, the more it seemed that I was getting angry and asking why he wanted to know my name. This back and forth went on for quite a while and I felt so bad for this kind stranger who must have thought that I was being so rude to him. Thankfully, I finally did explain and left on good terms. This has happened to me a few times, but the worst is when I’m in a noisy street cafe or party and I have to shout my name to be heard. Then people really think I’m upset and not wanting to be friends, not that I’m shouting to be heard and that my name actually is Lee.

– Lee

The Missing Pyramids

Via Thomas Pinn

My most embarrassing moment was in my first week when I arrived in Cairo and organized a trip to the Pyramids of Giza with some fellow students at an Arabic center. I took the lead to organize the trip and as we were all students, we wanted to save money where we could. I noticed that there was a Cairo Metro station called Al-Ahram, which I knew translated to ‘The Pyramids.’ Feeling super smart that I knew what the translation was, I for some reason assumed that this is where the Giza Pyramids are. On the day, the people we were with mentioned that they didn’t know you could get to the Giza Pyramids by Metro, but I insisted that you could and took them all the way to Al-Ahram Metro station. Instead of going to the actual Giza Pyramids, we ended up 30 kilometers away in the neighborhood of Korba in Heliopolis where the Al-Ahram Metro station is. It didn’t take long after arriving and asking a few people on the street to find out that I made a very big mistake. Thankfully, we had a lovely day in the neighborhood of Korba anyway, but no one trusts me to plan any trips or holidays still to this day.

– Sarah

WE SAID THIS: Don’t miss…Snip Snip: Shocking Hair Salon Stories